Nicola Sturgeon, who, like her predecessor as First Minister of Scotland, seems to take it for granted that the SNP will hold the balance of power after the general election, has promised to reform the UK parliamentary system. She told her recent conference that her party would work with other “people of progressive opinion.”
As long as Scotland remains part of the Westminster system, we will be your allies in seeking to shake up and reform that outdated and discredited system once and for all. Westminster needs to change. To be more responsive to the needs and demands of ordinary people, wherever they are in the UK. So to people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, I make this promise. The SNP stands ready to work with you in making that positive change for all of us.
So far, so good. Anyone who watched the BBC2 documentary series Inside the Commons would agree that it is not only the crumbling building which needs repair. A democracy that depends on its representatives mastering a 45 chapter tome on procedure first written in 1844, is hardly fitted to the digital age.
But there is a parliament much closer to home that Ms Sturgeon ought to consider as a candidate for reform.
When it was conceived 15 years ago, the Scottish parliament was to be the antithesis of Westminster. Its modern, progressive, consensual ethos was symbolised by its semi-circular chamber, so different from the face-to-face benches of Westminster, which invite confrontation. The Consultative Steering Group, which wrote the Scottish Parliament’s standing orders, also designed a committee system that was to be innovative and powerful.
Paul Cairney, Professor of politics and public policy at the University of Stirling, described it as “invested with a range of powers and functions that we associate with relatively strong legislatures. It has combined standing and select committee functions, to help develop expertise within the committees responsible for scrutinising legislation. Most committees are permanent and not subject to government dissolution.
They have relatively few members, to allow them to develop a ‘businesslike,’ not partisan, culture. The number of conveners (chairs) is proportional by party and they are selected by each committee. Committee deliberation takes place before the initial and final plenary stages. Committees can invite witnesses and demand government documents. They have an unusual role, which involves the monitoring of the Scottish Government’s pre-legislative consultation (although its power, to oblige the removal of legislative sections based on insufficient consultation, is used rarely). Further, if all else fails, they have the ability to initiate their own bills (as can individual MSPs, in a much more straightforward way than in Westminster).
Reforms that bring real change?
Along with the new parliament came a new proportional voting system to replace the Westminster first-past-the-post. It would, it was assumed, banish one party rule forever. Coalition administrations would reinforce the ideal of co-operative government. There was also supposed to be an unprecedented opening of the parliamentary process to public participation.
The Steering Group envisaged a civic forum and a petitions process to enable ordinary people and non-political organisations to initiate changes to regulation or even new legislation.
As Cairney points out, the expectations were so high that it was virtually inevitable that the Scottish Parliament would not be able to live up to them. But the disappointment, even before the SNP became a majority government in 2011, was profound. The committees found themselves bogged down in scrutinising government proposals and have not initiated any new legislation of their own since 2002. Too often they have divided along partisan lines and such inquiries of their own that they have carried out have seldom influenced government policy. Public participation has been superficial. The only notable private member’s Bill was Tommy Sheridan’s attack on warrant sales in 2005.
A sham democracy?
Nor has the parliament been able to stop the government doing what it wants to do. Mostly, the Lab-Lib administrations before 2007 and even the SNP minority government 2007-11 were able to get their own way, often bypassing parliament altogether, either introducing or changing regulations, or just doing things without the need for primary legislation.
Since the arrival of the SNP with a majority, the committees have become a reflection of the parliament, dividing on party lines. A blatant example of this was the election of members of the Scottish fiscal commission, which Is supposed to give the government independent advice on tax and spending forecasts. This will become increasingly important as Scotland gains more powers.
Two of the three “commissioners” proposed by the Scottish Government were already members of the First Minister’s council of economic advisers. There is no reflection on these people as individuals, but the principle of objective advice is fatally undermined when a majority of the commission’s members are simultaneously on the body recommending policies and the one charged with assessing their effectiveness.
This point was made forcefully in the press and by the opposition parties in the Finance Committee, but ignored by the SNP’s majority on the committee and pushed through by the majority in the parliament’s chamber.
A brave stand for reform has been taken by Tricia Marwick, the parliament’s presiding officer, herself an SNP MSP before assuming her non-partisan position. Among other changes, she has suggested the election of committee conveners by the whole parliament, an innovation adopted with considerable success by Westminster five years ago. It has led to strong committee chairs, such as Margaret Hodge (Labour at Public Accounts) and Andrew Tyrie (Conservative at Treasury), who derive their power base from the whole legislature and are able to use it to stand up to the executive.
In a presentation to the David Hume Institute she called for a culture shift towards MSPs seeing their roles within the parliament as fulfilling careers in themselves, rather than seeing ministerial office as the only route to advancement and public service. They should have training – induction courses for new MSPs (piloted in 2011) and CPD (continuing professional development) for established politicians. And they should have much more support. So far, the 400 parliament staff have done a valiant job, but the Scottish Government can count on ten times as many civil servants.
Holding the executive truly to account
One of the other problems Ms Marwick highlighted was that there are not enough MSPs to go around. Once you discount ministers and others who, for one reason or another, are unavailable to serve on committees, there are around 80 people to fill 132 committee places. An MSP who is on two or three committees hardly has time to read the papers for each meeting, let alone adequately scrutinise the detail of legislation.
Increasing the number of elected politicians is politically impossible, so she suggested there should be fewer, larger committees, although they might break into smaller sub groups for specialist tasks.
Although she did not go this far, the implication of what she proposes is: the legislature should see itself as a separate, sometimes countervailing force, to the executive, not subservient to it. She has started the discussion on reform, but don’t hold your breath: there are many entrenched interests standing in the way.